Rosanne Cash Tugs on the Threads of Her Past
The Grammy-winning album explores her family's legacy and the South
(Rosanne Cash just won three Grammys for her album, The River & The Thread, which Next Avenue wrote about last year. The Grammys were: Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song for the album's A Feather's Not a Bird and Best American Roots Performance for that song. Below is the original article.)
Rosanne Cash is chatting with me from her New York City brownstone. Her tone is graceful, her words expressive — not unlike her songs.
She’s just returned from doing four shows in Canada to promote the release of her latest album, The River & The Thread — a stirring, poetic evocation of personalities and perceptions gleaned from several car trips she took with her 14-year-old son and husband, musician/producer John Leventhal, through the American South over the last few years, journeys that led her to grasp the formative power of the region where she and many of her ancestors were born.
Honoring People and Places
The fact that Cash is in her Chelsea brownstone today reflects a love and honor for people and places close to her heart — motivations that echo strongly in the album, though the geographical focus is the opposite. “I am touring,” she says, “but it’s in spurts because I have a teenage son and I don’t like being away from him for very long. I usually go out for a weekend, or put a four-day cap on a trip so I can be with him as much as possible.”
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The River & The Thread bears testament to the fact that Cash, 58, wants her children (she also has three grown kids from her first marriage to singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell) to have more than her time. She wants them to have a concrete rendition of their legacy — one that has passed through her lyrical lens and is rooted in her honest appraisal of her personal history and in her whole-hearted efforts to reconcile its complex parts against a broader Southern story.
In this sense, the album is a hallmark second-half-of-life achievement — both in terms of its objectives and the accumulated experiences, emotional maturity and musical sophistication required to pull it off.
The songs offer up ample evidence that Cash has learned to tune out the static in her universe (some of which stems from the iconic stature of her singer-songwriter father, Johnny Cash) and listen to the most truthful chords, the ones that matter most.
“I thought it was important to visit these places in the South and be open to them and really acknowledge my connections, instead of thinking that it was something in my past and behind me,” she says. “To find out where it still remained in me and in what form was important not only for me and my sense of wholeness, but for my children too. I felt that if I didn’t know the import of where I came from, how that still resonated in my life and what it meant, how could they know?”
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Maturing Into Fuller Acceptance
For Cash, the places she visited shape what she calls “a mysterious, awe-inspiring vortex.” They include Arkansas, the birthplace of her father; Alabama; Louisiana and the Delta and Tennessee, where she was born and spent childhood summers, as well as the early years of her first marriage.
She didn’t intentionally travel through these places to probe the past (an Arkansas State University’s request to purchase and restore her dad’s boyhood house prompted the first trip). In fact, Cash hadn’t been aware of the potency of their impact — on her or the nation at large.
“I’m almost embarrassed to say that some of the key people, like Emmett Till, were only footnotes in my consciousness,” says Cash.
But once she was in these locales and encountering people she had once known, new friends and pivotal historical characters, she was flooded with a sense of their significance as well as the richness of their stories. Sifted through a funnel of mature sensibilities, they yielded a wholly fresh outlook.
Cash sums up the experience with a quote from T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding: “And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”
But a line from a song on her new album, The Long Way Home, crystallizes the journey's essence in her own words: “You thought you left it all behind. You thought you’d up and gone. When all you did was figure out how to take the long way home.”
“It’s not as it was when I was a little child,” she tells me. “It’s not what it was when I visited as a teenager. It’s not what it was when I lived in Tennessee for a decade as a young mother. There’s a fullness to the experience now that accepts both the weirdness and the beauty.”
Fusing Land and Lore
The southern region that Cash traveled gave rise to momentous social upheavals like the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement as well as groundbreaking music (in an article Cash wrote for the Oxford American, she poignantly describes a scene in which her son stands beneath a poster of her father in the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis where he, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins got their start). The River & The Thread gives a very personal guided tour of the area and events both fictional and true.
Bearing signature traces of key southern musical genres, from Country Pop and Delta Blues to Swamp and Appalachia, Leventhal’s melodies alternately rouse and haunt. Together with Cash’s introspective lyrics, the songs serve as a kind of prism — refracting a piercing past to cast light on future possibility.
“The opening track, A Feather's Not a Bird, really lays out the landscape and there’s this urgency to the journey,” says Cash. “I’m speaking in third person, but it’s also me traveling the landscape and time-traveling it and touching these points that resonate through the area and through my own psyche….places in Memphis and Arkansas, the Delta, that are literal and symbolic.”
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Other third-person voices Cash channels into autobiographical songs include those of her grandmother (in The Sunken Lands) and Marshall Grant (in the song Etta’s Tune), the bassist in her father’s original backing duo who was married to Etta for 65 years. Cash finds majesty in the past but the song 50,000 Watts points to her feeling that “resolution lies in who we are and not who we were.”
Loving the Thread, Finding a Voice
Today, Cash stitches past and present together in a more literal way — by actually sewing — which she says would have absolutely delighted her mother, an expert in multiple domestic arts.
During her southern sojourn, Cash was taught to sew by an Alabama-based seamstress and dressmaker, Natalie Chanin, and was struck by the metaphorical dimensions of the words Natalie uttered while starting her needle. “You have to love the thread,” she instructed.
The phrase chillingly captured Cash’s emotional trajectory, her willingness to stop pushing back against the South and instead embrace its fabric. So, fraught and relevant, the word thread made its way into the new album’s title.
The singer-songwriter is now part of a New York City-based sewing circle and finds great pleasure in the enriching bonds it provides.
“I’m sitting down with these women once a month, and we just talk about everything,” she says. "The connection has been so nurturing to me because I don’t have my mom or my grandmothers anymore and not that many older women in my life at all. I spend so much time with men in the studio, on the road, all men, men, men, constantly. I live with two men — my husband and son. So this has been unbelievably great for me and I didn’t realize how much I needed it until we started doing it.”
The arc Cash traces as she set about understanding the many aspects of who she is and what gives her comfort is one that’s constantly being refined.
“Finding one’s voice may be a lifelong mission, but at some point you have to know what it is,” she says. “So, it just keeps expanding. Even in one’s 50s, you’re still casting off what’s not me or you outgrow something. I’m still curious and I think that’s a lifesaver. I’m still curious about the world and what makes me tick; I’m curious about what makes my husband tick and unraveling those things.”
Nurturing a Long Marriage
The River & The Thread project marks an important evolution in Cash’s collaboration with her husband. “I see the expansion of our relationship,” Cash says. “In the early part, it was all the flush of romance and a little bit unconscious. And the middle part was hard. Now we’ve gotten to the grownup version of what we had in the beginning, which is just so wonderful. We’re turned out to the world more rather than turned into our own internal chaos. There’s a feeling that we’re creating something together that is greater than the sum of the parts — to me, that’s real romance and it’s a source of great beauty for us. We’re proud of ourselves that we were able to get to this. It’s hard work, but rewarding.”
She’s also working hard at “getting the new record out there.” But when it comes to determining next steps, Cash takes a less burdened approach. “I’m the kind of person that just puts one foot in front of the other,” she says.
That way of moving forward works really well when your eyes are open — it can lead you away from the shadows of legacy toward pools of light.